Review: ‘Problemista’

Julio Torres' Surreal Directorial Debut Features A Monstrous Tilda Swinton

Julio Torres made a name for himself writing surreal sketches on Saturday Night Live. His most famous, “Papyrus” starring Ryan Gosling and “Wells for Boys” with Emma Stone, blended specificity and cerebral self-awareness, two things he applies to his brilliant directorial debut, Problemista. Unexpected and surreal with a career-best performance from Tilda Swinton, the film sheds comedic light on the kinds of people who thrive and wallow in conflict. 

Torres plays Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer who immigrated to the US with the hopes of working as an intern for Hasbro. After a stint as an archivist for a cryogenics company, he must find another job to sponsor him if he hopes to stay here and eventually get the internship. His only option seems to be working for the obsessive and obstinate wife of his former charge. Elizabeth, an art critic, is the kind of woman who will tell someone to stop yelling at her when she is the one raising her voice. She is critical of everyone around her yet will not do anything about her own hair, which is bulky, frizzy, and a washed out ungodly shade of red. 

Of course, her visa sponsorship comes with caveats: She will only sponsor Alejandro if he helps her curate a show for her dead husband. As her demands get more demanding including her insistence that he learn Filemaker Pro, Ale starts to wonder what is he doing all of this for.

Problemista is at its best when it leans into its surrealist elements. When Alejandro is trying to find under-the-table work, he turns to Craigslist, personified by the ethereal Larry Owens who speaks only in its listing titles and gives the role the tantalizing sexiness that it deserves. During one of their pivotal arguments, he envisions Elizabeth as a hydra, part shadow puppet, and part elaborate costume that Swinton wears. At one point Greta Lee receives the most detailed and hilarious written apology in cinema history. The more specific and out-there Torres is with his material, the more enjoyable the film is. 

Many people would – and will – call Elizabeth a “Karen”. I associate the term with racist undertones, which Elizabeth does not have. She will yell at just about anyone, especially if they are white. It’s in these moments of conflict that Torres and Swinton bond. The former brings out the humanity in the latter, admiring her determination without condoning it. The push and pull between the two holds the heart of the film. While parts of Torres’ direction feel fragmented from the rest of the piece, he always returns to the screwed-up relationship between them, making Problemista oddly heartwarming.

Problemista opens wide Friday. Watch the trailer below.

Cortland Jacoby
A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.
review-problemistaJulio Torres brings his surreal stylings seen on 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Los Espookys' to the big screen, with a comedic look at the New York Art scene and US immigration system.